In service of Acumen and RIN’s shared goals to build the RLI field and mobilize investment capital into this space, on 29th September, we co-hosted the inaugural Refugee Lens Investing Summit at the Radisson Blu Upper Hill in Nairobi, Kenya. The RLI Summit convened 100 key stakeholders from 68 organizations representing the emerging refugee lens ecosystem in East Africa, including representatives from social enterprises, impact investors, philanthropic foundations, donor governments, and humanitarian and technical experts. Roughly a third of attendees were representatives from RLI businesses, 40% were investors or funders, and the rest from ecosystem organizations. There was representation from three donor governments, including SDC, Global Affairs Canada and the Netherlands.


The Summit aimed to explore how the private sector and innovative finance can promote social cohesion and self-reliance for FDP and host communities, and to facilitate connections to mobilize capital into RLI companies. Acumen and RIN’s overall objectives for the Summit included:

  1. Build the field of RLI and raise awareness of opportunities by sharing insights from the RLI joint project;
  2. Challenge the common, negative narrative that accompanies FDP in region by showcasing examples of refugee companies and entrepreneurs;
  3. Facilitate connections between investors/funders and SMEs to ultimately mobilize more capital into this ecosystem and demonstrate/showcase investable companies;
  4. Prioritize as in-person and interactive, with lots of opportunities to connect and network (breaks, facilitated networking);
  5. Set the stage to make this inaugural event an annual event for this community, and ensure support to replicate the event in future.

To ensure we met objectives 1-4, the day was designed to share foundational insights and to be as interactive as possible. Plenary sessions filled the morning agenda and introduced the refugee lens, explored how RLI differs from traditional impact investing, shared new tools like the ROI developed with Economist Impact and the emerging RLI framework development with BFAGlobal, and highlighted the blended finance instruments and facilities that practitioners are developing for this nascent field through a panel discussion.

After lunch, participants joined two back-to-back break-out sessions to provide opportunities for networking and smaller group discussion. The first break-out session shared insights from the RIN landscaping reports by country, with groups for Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia. The second break-out session featured chat-rooms for companies and investors/funders interested to meet them, with groups for each of grassroots/start-ups, early-stage SMEs and growth-stage SMEs.

To specifically address objectives 2 and 3, the day ended with a celebratory showcase of five business models that are tackling displacement by advancing sustainable livelihoods for FDP, that featured East African entrepreneurs – including women and FDP founders – from Acumen’s first Accelerator for Ventures Serving Forcibly Displaced Populations, followed by a dinner for the event sponsors and speakers. To ensure we met objectives 3 and 4, the organizing team was also keen to provide ample time for networking, and coffee breaks, lunches, and a cocktail hour were all woven throughout the agenda to maximize opportunities for connection and matchmaking.

After the event, roughly a third of event attendees responded to our follow up survey. Feedback was strong, with the event receiving an average score of 4.7 out of 5, based on a 5-point scale with 1 being the lowest score and 5 the highest. Qualitative feedback from attendees included:

  • “Learning from the experience of companies that work with refugees was key for me. Also the intentionality of going beyond just working with refugees but also positively impacting on their lives by these companies was a good take home.”
  • “The sessions were insightful and very well presented. Was engaged throughout.”
  • “In the session ‘Accelerator for Ventures Serving Forcibly Displaced Population’ I once again learned how creative, energetic, and unstoppable African entrepreneurs are even in the most challenging environments such as displacement settings!”
  • “So exciting and motivating to see RL businesses in factions. Also I liked the time and space for networking.”

There were also several key learnings from the event and some have been incorporated into the  Phase II design:

  • We were inclusive with invitations and this paid off. The Acumen and RIN teams did deep work to find, invite and support RLI businesses to attend the event. We extended invitations to over 50 enterprises and 21 entrepreneurs received small travel scholarships from Acumen to attend the Summit.
  • The absence of policy maker attendees was a gap, however, one that was considered: numerous invited officials opted to not attend the Summit despite efforts to bring them in. In hindsight, we may have been more successful at gaining policy maker stakeholders to the summit by working with partners to secure their attendance and thus will redesign our approach to governments in Phase II, involving the likes of IGAD and ReDSS who have deep relationships with local governments.  We also plan to hold smaller, more local events that have more specific country focus in order to attract officials. Specifically, RIN will work with IGAD and ReDSS to build a stronger private sector engagement component to the Kampala Declaration plan of action process, building on RIN’s presentation of our country study findings at the October 2022 regional experts forum in Nairobi.
  • We received feedback from some participants about needing to have a more intentional discussion with businesses on what works with regards to funding (access to finance), as well as unpacking the whole issue of impact (what it really means and what will work in an effort to make it last beyond specific programs).
  • Finally, we acknowledge the oversight of not giving the attending donors (SDC and JICA) an opportunity to provide remarks about why they are supporting durable solutions for forced displacement and specifically this ecosystem building work. We expect to host more events as part of Phase II activities, and hope that throughout the duration of the program all donors will have an opportunity to attend and be directly involved in the agenda.

Acumen and RIN are extremely excited to build on the momentum from the inaugural RLI Summit. With support from the IKEA Foundation, Hilton Foundation and Swiss Development Cooperation, in Phase II, RIN will take on the annual preparation and facilitation of these landmark events that will continue to drive the deepening and acceleration of an East Africa RLI ecosystem.